Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman combs Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
“Beer is a good family drink,” writes Lydia Maria Child in The Frugal Housewife in 1830 — and she meant for the whole family. In early America, every man, woman and child was drinking what today we think of as homebrew: beer brewed in the home for use in the home.
The beers Child describes in her book were lightly fermented, sweet and yeasty drinks. (The first time I had kombucha, it reminded me of a ginger beer I had made from her recipe.) Most people are quick to tell you that early Americans drank beer because the water was unsafe — but in fact, in most of America, the water was clean and healthy. The reality is that in a time before soda or fruit juice, there were very few choices for drinks. Water got boring and beer tasted good.
By the end of the 19th century, American habits had shifted; most folks went out to the saloon for a drink instead of brewing it themselves. But home brewing was about to undergo a huge revival, thanks to prohibition. When the Volstead Act outlawed the production of alcohol in 1919, some beer lovers sought satisfaction at the grocery store: bakery-aisle staples like malt extract, yeast, and grain could be covertly transformed into beer. Terrible beer, but beer.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, due to an “administrative oversight,” home winemaking was legalized, but not home brewing. So the task of making beer was left to commercial breweries — which dwindled in number (and quality) in the ensuing decades, from 756 breweries in 1934 to just 58 by 1992. Without the legal freedom to tinker at home, it seemed that Americans had forgotten how to brew good beer.
It must have been the lack of good (or at least interesting) beer that drove a few daring souls to break the law and brew at home. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw a rush of homebrew books fanning the flames of the illicit homebrew movement, which appealed to the do-it-yourself attitude of the era. By 1979, home brewing had become so overwhelmingly mainstream that President Carter signed a bill to legalize it at the federal level. Still, the final say on homebrew legislation rests at the state level, and Mississippi and Alabama, the last holdouts, only just decided to allow it in 2013.
Today, thanks to a slew of supplies vendors (both online and on the ground) and beginner-friendly home-brewing workshops popping up nationwide, it’s easy for anyone to try his or her hand at making beer. On Etsy alone, you’ll find everything from a gorgeous two-gallon kit from Box Brew Kits, with cobalt-blue bottles and a reclaimed-wood base, to a full-sized, borderline-industrial five-gallon brewing setup. You can find some unique extras and accessories, too: antique bottle cappers, grow-your-own hops plants, and a “dry hopping” kit to add an extra kick to brewed beer, plus recipe packages for oatmeal stouts and IPAs, seasonal brews like pumpkin ale and Christmas ale, and even a piña colada pale beer.
I purchased a One-Gallon Starter Beer-Making Kit from Urban Brewery, which came with all the supplies and instructions for brewing an American wheat beer. Inspired by a favorite local brewery that grew out of a garage operation, John, the Michigan-based founder, developed his system to allow even amateur brewers to tackle brewing high-quality, all-grain beers — typically a complicated proposition — using only one bag of grain and one kettle. His kits even fit easily inside a closet-sized New York apartment — like mine.
But the best part about these kits? You can use them to brew any beer you like. I decided to begin my homebrew experience with a nod to Lydia Child, and ordered a ginger beer kit from Sandy Leaf Farm. Because it’s inspired by those colonial recipes, it’s simple, which makes it a great starting point for first-time brewers. “I think that’s one of the reasons we get so many orders from people who have never brewed anything before,” says shop owner Scott, who researched the recipe after his mother told him she made ginger beer when she was young.
To start my batch of ginger beer, I nurtured a small yeast culture in a jam jar for a week. Then it was ready to be combined with ginger and sugar in my glass jug — or fermenter, in brewer’s lingo — to bubble away for three days. I finally transferred it to a two-liter soda bottle, where the yeast gobbled up the last of the sugar and released gas to carbonate the beverage. I could even adjust the sweetness of the beverage at this point by letting the yeast work longer, or adding more sugar, before putting the ginger beer in the refrigerator.
The result? A delicious marriage between soda and beer: fizzy and tangy from the yeast, spicy from the ginger, and just the right amount of sweet.
Ready to start earning your own brewer’s cred? Tap the wide selection of brewing supplies and accessories on Etsy — and be sure to tell us how your experiments go!